Meet Kehilat Yesharim
To be a people who walk rightly before the Lord – honest, upright, and blameless. To live with a deep heart of love for God and compassion for one another. This is the pursuit of Kehilat Yesharim, a nascent and growing Ethiopian congregation in southern Israel’s Kiryat Gat.
Come Teach Us about Yeshua
Yeshiwas Aysheshim is a kind and hard-working Ethiopian Jew who made aliyah (immigrated) with his family in 1998. Seven years ago, Yeshiwas took a day off from his government job at the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) to visit relatives in Kiryat Gat. There he received a timely cry for help.
“There are four believers in Jesus in the city and there is no congregation here. Can you go and visit them?” This is how it all began.
Yeshiwas went to pray with and disciple these new believers at a friend’s home. They invited him to return the following week. And the small group of believers in Kiryat Gat began to grow.
Kiryat Gat: A Center of Ancient Champions and Modern Diversity
Kiryat Gat is a modest city of some 60,000 residents, located between Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva, just northeast of Gaza. The city’s name hails from Gath (meaning “winepress”), which was historically one of five major Philistine cities. It is most notably famed as the hometown of Goliath, the champion giant defeated by David and his trusty slingshot (1 Samuel 17).
Since its modern reestablishment in 1954, Kiryat Gat has become a diverse industrial and textile center largely populated by new immigrants to Israel, including many North African and Soviet Jews. Over the past several decades, many families made aliyah (immigrated) from Ethiopia with the assistance of the Israeli government and settled in this region. This ongoing story merits a bit of air time.
Aliyah: The Invitation to Come Home
Since the early 1950’s, the Israeli government has helped many groups of Jewish people around the world immigrate to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return (enacted in 1950, amended in 1955 and 1970).
In the simplest of terms, the Law of Return states that “Every Jew has the right to immigrate to this country…”
This concept is a foundation stone in Israel’s values as a nation. The Jewish people need wander no more. The reborn State of Israel would be a haven of refuge and the homeland for all Jewish people everywhere.
The application of the Law of Return law can vary based on certain caveats, one of which frequently affects people of Jewish heritage that also believe in Yeshua. Much of the nuance in appropriating this law boils down to the simple question, “Who is a Jew?”
The answer to that question can be quite complex, so we’ll aim to address that topic later.
However, for now, let’s briefly visit the homecoming story of Ethiopian Jews.
Ethiopian Jewry and Aliyah
The history of the Ethiopian Jewish community, or Beta Israel, is still somewhat unclear. Yet it is believed to date all the way back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. A distinct Jewish community was evident in Ethiopia as early as the destruction of the first temple in 587 BCE.
The perpetuity of Ethiopian Jewish identity is consistent with Jewish customs and the community’s strong adherence to the Torah. Although not considered legally Jewish according to modern Orthodox religious law (halacha), the State of Israel acknowledges the Jewish bloodline and heritage of Ethiopian Jews.
Operation Moses and the Seed of Israel
According to the amended Law of Return in 1970, Ethiopian Jews are considered Zera Israel – or the “Seed of Israel.” As such, they are eligible to immigrate to Israel.
In the early 1950s, the State of Israel began helping Ethiopians of Jewish descent immigrate to Israel. By the 1970s, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Jewish Agency were initiating multiple government-sponsored missions to rescue the Ethiopian Jewish community from the dictatorial grip of a Marxist regime and the growing trend of persecution.
Operation Moses and Operation Solomon were two of several covert missions in the 1980s and 90s that collectively extracted tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, airlifting them safely to their new home in Israel. Ethiopian Aliyah is still ongoing today, reuniting families that have been separated for decades.
And this is how Yeshiwas and his family landed in Israel.
Kehilat Yesharim: From Small Group to Congregation
He never intended to be a pastor. Yet for three years, Yeshiwas and his family prayed for and discipled this small group of new believers in Kiryat Gat.
Then, in 2018, their family took a bold leap of faith. Even though both Yeshiwas and his wife worked full-time government jobs in Jerusalem, they decided to rent a meeting room in Kiryat Gat from their own budget and start a congregation. Their faith steps were confirmed in a dream.
The Lord spoke clearly to Yeshiwas’ wife, leading her to Daniel 6:22 and affirming that the congregation was to be named “Kehilat Yesharim” (essentially meaning a community of people who walk rightly, blamelessly, or honestly).
“My God sent his angel and shut the lion’s mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” Daniel 6:22
Within the first year, 6 people came to faith and were baptized. Based on western measures of church growth, this number may seem paltry. However, in Israel, where the community of believers in Yeshua is still less than 1% of the total population, six baptized believers in one year shouts of hope and transformation. It means new life and freedom for entire families, and for generations to come.
Like Pastor Yeshiwas and his family, much of the congregation today does not even live in Kiryat Gat. Yet they readily drive the distance to be a part of the prayerful and loving family atmosphere that characterizes Kehilat Yesharim. Their lives have been set free and transformed by Yeshua, and their community needs this hope.
Ongoing Need in the Ethiopian Israeli Community
The Ethiopian community in Israel is still deep in the throes of its journey towards cultural integration. Much of the older generation speaks only Amharic, whereas the younger Hebrew-speakers are less proficient in their native Ethiopian tongue and culture. This can lead to dissonance between the generations.
Youth balance the bi-cultural reality of their Ethiopian heritage in a modern Israeli context. They forge new friendships and an emerging identity, not exempt from stereotypes and prejudice. They face new opportunities and obligations, such as compulsory military service. The stress of integration affects life choices. Many experience broken family dynamics and experiment with drug and alcohol use.
Life in Israel for Ethiopian Jews is both a blessing and a challenge. They need the Good News.
A Message of Hope and Healing
Kehilat Yesharim is reaching people with the gospel of Yeshua that brings life and hope. People find freedom and deliverance from substance abuse, experience physical healing, and restoration of broken marriages. This congregation is meeting a great need in a community where, just a few years ago, only four people knew about Yeshua.
This January, Pastor Yeshiwas Aysheshim will graduate from theological studies at Israel College of the Bible. He is starting a new Bible study in nearby Kiryat Malachi and the work of the ministry is growing. Even though both he and his wife still work full-time and the need for ministry is great, they are excited about the momentum.
How to Pray for Kehilat Yesharim
When asked how people could come alongside to support and pray for Kehilat Yesharim, Pastor Yeshiwas said:
“Pray for the congregation to grow. We have a deep heart for evangelism, healing, and deliverance. Finances for rent and transportation issues are often a challenge for churches in Israel. And we would like to have a children’s classroom to teach the kids.
Someday, I would love to be able to pastor full-time. Here, most pastors have to work full-time jobs as well as serve in ministry. I know that God will open the door at the right time. My vision is only to serve Him.
But mostly, we just want people to know the Lord. There is no salvation without Jesus, He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
There are many more Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel who need to know the One who offers this healing hope and life. And Kehilat Yesharim is actively a part of this answer.
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